Erasing the academic disadvantages of poverty

The city of Somerville, Massachusetts, population 77k, has slowly grown into a reputation of excellence over the last decade — excellence in budgeting, in governance, in healthy living, in public television, in community. But one critical area where excellence has not been so clear is in education.

When compared to all 244 districts in the state, Somerville scores below average on standardized testing in every subject, in every grade. But this data doesn’t tell the full story. Somerville is one of 24 school districts designated as Urban School Districts in Massachusetts, a designation which incorporates district size and socioeconomic diversity, among other things.

Two statistics offer more insight into Somerville schools:  52% of students in Somerville go home to non-English speaking households, and  69% of students in Somerville come from low-income families (eligible for  free or reduced lunch,  Transitional Aid to Families, or  food stamps). This is more than double the low-income rate across the state,  34%. In a city that is bustling with economic growth and a bright future, most people are surprised to learn these statistics.

These facts are not uncommon among urban districts, which is why absolute standardized test scores don’t offer an apples-to-apples comparison with other cities across the Commonwealth. The  Student Growth Percentile (SGP), which measures how much a student grows academically in one school year compared to his/her academic peers, starts to approach a more full diagnosis of a district’s success.

In 2013, Somerville performed better than 81% of Massachusetts schools in student growth and topped all 24 Urban School Districts, and that is something to be very proud of. This data reflects the incredibly hard, and successful, work of every single teacher in every classroom pushing each student and teaching in a way that each student learns best.

Among this data though is another remarkable story that hasn’t yet been told. When we dig into individual grades and subjects along income lines, we learn something very important in a city with such a large low-income population.

Somerville Public Schools almost completely erase the academic disadvantages of low-income students.

Let’s take a look. When we look at median standardized test scores of low-income students compared to non low-income students, we see that low-income students start out with a significant disadvantage for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here ( more here).

The median low-income student scores below proficient by nearly 40%, in other words 70% of low-income students score needs improvement or worse while only 30% score proficient or better. Almost exactly opposite in 2013, more than 70% of non low-income students score proficient or better, while less than 30% score needs improvement or worse.

But let’s look at what happens to these students in 5th grade, 8th grade, and 10th grade. Over time, we see the general downward trend reversed slightly, and then dramatically. In 5th grade, most low-income students are still performing just under proficient.

By 8th grade, significant gains have been made as nearly 65% of low-income students areproficient or better in English and all students are improving over time.

By 10th grade English, the academic difference between low-income and non low-income students is gone.

In a district of over 4,900 students in which more than 2,500 go home to non-English speaking households, it is an incredible accomplishment of teachers and the district that the 30% vs. 70% split of proficient vs. non proficient low-income students is more than reversed to a 85% vs. 15% split between proficient vs. non proficientlow-income students.

In real terms, 180 sixteen year olds every year have been empowered to overcome early academic disadvantages they showed when they were nine, due largely to the instruction and attention to English in Somerville Schools.

Math scores are equally encouraging, flipping 65% needs improvementor worse low-income students into 65% proficient or better students by 10th grade, though while maintaining a lingering 10% lag behind non low-income students.

Literacy has long been proven as a critical factor in ending generational poverty, with UNESCO  calling it “an indispensable means for effective social and economic participation, contributing to human development and poverty reduction.” This bodes well not only for the individual students and their families, but for a city that is thriving and embracing its cultural diversity and economic health.

Somerville can be proud of what is has accomplished and what it offers those students living in poverty, and now is the right time to ask tough questions about how we build on this momentum, how we increase our engagement with parents, and how we tap into additional local resources to multiply our schools’ impact.

On November 5th, Ward 2 will elect its first new member of the School Committee in 22 years to carry this momentum forward in partnership with parents, teachers, and local organizations & businesses. Please  let your voice be heard.

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